Racism and intolerance are tricky subjects. They require a careful, almost kid gloves approach to their inherent issues and an equally amount of topical tip toeing. Less one be accused of bigotry themselves, the agenda always comes before the answers, and the entire presentation has to pretend that smarter, sophisticated heads will cool and clash and prevail. Needless to say, tackling such material has made filmic mincemeat out of otherwise brilliant artists. Novelty works, but only in short, cerebral bursts. After snagging two Oscar nominations for his work on Big and Dave, writer Gary Ross wanted to take on such touchy subject matter with his directorial debut - Pleasantville. With its combination of visual and narrative invention, insightful performances, and careful consideration of the central theme, the first time filmmaker managed something rare indeed. While not wholly perfect or culturally significant, it presented the concepts of prejudice and conformity in a novel, knowledgeable light, that, today, seem like the stuff of legend, as well as legitimate moviemaking.
Twins David and Jennifer couldn't be more different. She is a trend-addicted teen worried about class cliques and peer pressure. He's a couch potato geek who loves a cheesy old sitcom from the '50s known as Pleasantville. One day, a weird TV repairman shows up at their door, offering them an unusual remote control. A fight over said device lands our adolescent duo inside the set itself. Now locked in the world of Pleasantville, they learn the truth about the otherwise idyllic stars of the show, the fictional Parker family - that is, they appear terminally unhappy.
Forced to "play" their onscreen offspring, David and Jennifer have differing reactions to their dilemma. She wants nothing to do with this backward time and place. He, on the other hand, begins to influence the population, enlightening them on subject as diverse as art, music, sex, freedom, and literature. This awakening causes many in the monochrome realm to suddenly take on various shades and hues - they literally cast off their black and white aura. Of course, some of the uptight townsfolk are frightened by this development, and soon a stand-off begins between those who are unchanged, and those who are now 'colored'.
As allegories go, Pleasantville is...pleasant enough. It's casual, non confrontational, and rather sly in the way it reveals its intentions. By setting the story in the televised vision of suburbia circa the mid '50s, by avoiding outright illustrations of ethnicity for a more genial, generic approach, writer/director Gary Ross realizes a rare achievement. He finds a clever way of concealing obvious symbols, shocking us with how childlike and fanciful such an otherwise fiery fable can be. It's a difficult bit of cinematic acrobatics, and for his part, Ross doesn't always stick the landing. There are times - as when Tobey Maguire's David argues with Don Knotts' repairman through the TV - where the movie goes a bit wonky. Also, a couple of the character arcs don't feel quite are organic as you imagine the filmmaker thinks they are. Still, when shuttled along the more brazen and bombastic allusions about discrimination, Pleasantville provides a nice - and necessary - alternative. It's definitely sweet and a bit saccharine, but as the old proverb says, you capture more flies with sugar than vinegar.
When it came out in the late '90s, few thought Pleasantville has such designs up its sleeve. Most saw it as a nod to unnecessary nostalgia wrapped in a riddle about what Ross could be doing with such breezy backwards glancing. When he finally does announce his intentions (the repurposing of the term "colored" is borderline genius), everything that came before suddenly makes sense. The last act of Pleasantville is indeed a killer, a clever coming together of ideas and issues marred only superficially by a predomination to slowly circumvent the truth. While Jennifer's decision can be seen as embracing a kind of long lost simplicity and conservatism, the reality is that the title locale is now a bizzaro world combination of contemporary and classic - perfect to house an already confused and still maturing individual. Ross really outdoes himself during the denouement courtroom sequence, a sad inevitability hopefully teaching the strident that change in predictable, if not preferred.
Along with what Ross brings to the mix, the actors really exceed our expectations here. Maguire and future Oscar winner Reese Witherspoon make excellent battling siblings. They come across as related and yet easily relegated to their specific storyline designs. Similarly, William H. Macy and Joan Allen give the Parkers a peculiar, proto-counterculture spin. Both maneuver the clunky path between uptight and socially reborn with effortless grace. Not everyone is 100% flawless. Again, Knotts comes across as a stunt, a casting choice soaked in the kind of melancholy the movie tends to rail against. Similarly, Jeff Daniels sad sack soda jerk routine grows tired after a while. We sympathize, but can't fully fathom his ever-present malaise. Indeed, it's this note of reservation and reconsideration that keeps Pleasantville from being truly great. Instead of a full on celebration of how progress wipes out ignorance and narrow-mindedness, there is a shoulder shrug sense of concluding calm that undermines the otherwise forceful message. The corrosion (and counteracting) of conformity is an acidic atmosphere to trudge through. Pleasantville manages it quite well - if not faultlessly.
Utilizing a MPEG-4 AVC codec to bring both visions of Pleasantville to life, New Line (via Warner Brothers) does a nice job with this release. The initial monochrome may not be as sharp as we expect, given the need to slowly dissolve it into color, but there is a nice old school B&W charm to the image. Elsewhere, the use of digital F/X to meld the vibrancy of the changes with the staid old two tone situation comes across without any noticeable technological hitch. The transfer doesn't overly tweak the print. A nice level of grain remains, giving the film a solid cinematic feel, and the 1.85: format provided ample opportunity to experience heretofore unseen details. An all around solid blu-ray upgrade.
As far as the lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack goes, things are a little less polished. We still get a clean, crisp sonic backdrop with lots of speaker specific action, but the back channels offer little in the way of outward ambience, and the score often seems settled somewhere in the middle of the room. There are directional elements here, and during the last act courtroom sequence, we get the impression of being in a place surrounded by spectators and participants. The dialogue is delivered in an easy to understand manner, with little of the muddle we sometimes here in such expanded format ranges.
Overall, there is nothing new that wasn't already part of the original DVD release. All are presented in standard definition, including a trailer, a Paul Thomas Anderson directed music video for "Across the Universe" by Fiona Apple and a 30 minute Making-of entitled The Art of Pleasantville. The best added features remains an isolated score track with commentary by Randy Newman, and a full length discussion of the film by Ross. Both dialogues increase our understanding of how the movie was conceived, as well as the many trials and tribulations of bringing such a complex story to life.
Pleasantville is the kind of film you need to see twice in order to fully appreciate. The first time through, you can marvel at how writer/director Ross avoids the confrontational aspects of his approach to slowly, subtlety sneak his message into the movie. The second go-round, you can better see how the cast and crew fan the flames of such ambitions, aiding and abetting the filmmaking in ways that, initially, failed to fully appear. As a result, this nearly-timeless classic earns an easy Highly Recommended rating. It's so clever and crafty that it puts equally ambitious but always underachieving attempts to shame. Again, intolerance is never a simple subject. Somehow, Gary Ross found a way to turn it into a fable. Like any good yarn, the results stay with you, long after the final credits start to roll.